Is Ambedkar more acceptable than other icons like Periyar?
In terms of a pan-Indian representation for Dalits, B.R. Ambedkar emerged as a prominent figure, especially after his death. Earlier, the Centre and states weren’t interested in promoting Ambedkar. He was seen as a divisive person. Besides Ambedkar, there are hundreds of important other icons across the country. They are remembered by Dalit-led initiatives, like ‘Dalit History Month’, which is held in April for the past few years.
After he died, the Congress wouldn’t touch him with a 10-foot pole. He was politically isolated. He lost two general elections after Independence. Completely pliable Dalit candidates, who earlier worked for Ambedkar, were fielded against him. As such, he was defeated by Nehru and the Congress.
Even BJP exploits the situation. For example, during the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, the first brick was symbolically laid by a Dalit. The BJP-RSS combine has a game plan called the ‘Samarasta’, which means equality of all castes. As long as caste exists, there cannot be any equality. Whether it is the BJP or anybody else, Ambedkar is used in a particular manner as political capital. His ideology is not taken seriously.
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Today, the posthumous fame of Ambedkar is inevitable as he has become a trope for Dalit mobilisation across the nation. Political parties find it necessary to say that they like Ambedkar. Even within the Dalit movement, a kind of symbolic homage to Ambedkar takes precedence. So the government thinks it’s necessary, for example, to spend crores on the house in London where he had lived. However, parties including the BSP, cannot afford to be proactive when it comes to the implementation of the Prevention of Atrocities Act, or taking action on real issues that affect Dalits in terms of judgment. They cannot afford to alienate upper caste Hindus.
Similarly, the non-Brahmin movement in Tamil Nadu erased the contributions of intellectuals like Iyothee Thass and Rettamalai Srinivasan who preceded Periyar. Periyar would perform public ceremonies ritually beating Rama and Ganesh idols with ‘chappals.’ He participated in performative acts denigrating Hinduism. His appeal, even within Tamil Nadu, is purely ritualistic. Nobody takes it seriously.
The state has one of the highest instances of atrocities against Dalits. And it also has the highest number of temples, some 70000, maintained by the state where Dalits have no rights.If Periyar was accepted as an icon, despite his being a non-Dalit, the atrocities should have reduced.
Periyar’s contribution to the caste discourse is that he believed that other backward classes also deserve recognition. But other backward classes like the Gujjars, or Marathas or even the Patidars don’t invoke Periyar in their movement. His symbolic appeal outside Tamil Nadu is limited. Only Mayawati has promoted him in her 1990s phase.
They avoid him because invoking Periyar means you have to repudiate Hinduism. He attacked the religion in a dramatic and vulgar manner. Vulgar here has positive connotations since Periyar, who perceived Hinduism to be a vulgar religion, wanted to attack it on the same plane.
Periyar has consequently been dropped from popular discourse even as Ambedkar still continues to be relevant.
S. Anand is the co-founder of Navayana Publishing